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Career learning without college: HHS senior earns spot in competitive engineering apprenticeship

Hastings High School senior MacKenzie Ritchie has been coming up with invention ideas since she was a little girl. Her mother, Leslie, recalled driving past a soccer field and hearing her daughter comment on how somebody needed to make motion sensors for the field’s sprinkler systems so people could walk on the field without getting wet.

In high school, she’s channeled her creative energies into the arts. She’s currently rehearsing for the high school’s upcoming musical, “Evita;” she’s a member of Riverside Company, the top HHS show choir and was the color guard co-captain for the marching band. She’s made four duct tape dresses and has gotten into ceramics. Several of her pieces decorate her family’s home.

Figuring out how to make something different, and “the process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t work” is what Ritchie does really well, she said.

“It just kind of comes to me,” she said.

On the theater crew team, she loves when the HHS theater director gives her a project. Puzzling out how to make all the sets fit properly and go into place smoothly as well as coming up with the best way to take it all down is just the sort of thing she likes to do. She often sees solutions to problems that others get stuck on, she said.

With her heavy involvement in music and the arts, Ritchie figured she would look for a college where she could study theater and minor in voice, along with her friends. But while her creative work has impressed her peers and her teachers and she’s been on the B-honor roll nearly her whole high school career, her grades didn’t stand out enough for the colleges she wanted to attend and her applications were turned away.

But that’s not going to stop Ritchie from finding herself a successful career she loves.

On March 11, she got word from the Buhler Apprentice Academy that she was one of only six applicants to be accepted into a highly competitive apprenticeship with Buhler Inc., a Swiss company that deals with plant equipment and related services for processing basic foods and manufacturing high grade materials.

Ritchie has known about Buhler for several years. Her father, David, was the first American ever to attend Buhler’s Swiss Milling School in Switzerland and has worked on three continents for the company. Her uncle also works for Buhler, and Ritchie recently discovered that one of her old camp counselors is currently in the apprenticeship program there, too.

And, in seventh grade, Ritchie participated in a career project at Hastings Middle School where students had to pick a career and research it in depth. Ritchie chose engineering.

The program

Ritchie’s apprenticeship will teach her to be a customer service engineer through on-the-job paid training as well as technical instruction. She’ll learn all about the equipment Buhler produces, and by the time she’s finished her three-year apprenticeship, she’ll be the one sent out to help clients who have problems with their machinery.

“Because I’m so interested in learning how things work … and to fix things that are broken, it’s a perfect match for me,” Ritchie said.

And, because the company’s products are in use all over the world, Ritchie will get to travel internationally while she works. That’s great for her, since she’s always wanted to travel to Europe, she said.

Because it’s a Swiss company, Buhler is no stranger to apprenticeships. European companies rely heavily on apprenticeships to train and hire new employees. According the Buhler Apprenticeship Academy website, more than 60 percent of young people in Germany and Switzerland go through apprenticeship programs.

The program will also teach Ritchie how to speak and communicate in German.

Ritchie will begin her apprenticeship Aug. 1.

Education vs experience

For some people, the idea of moving into the work force without a college degree is daunting, but not for Ritchie. While the U.S. education system works for some, it doesn’t work for her, she said.

“I’m the kid that falls through the cracks,” she said.

And while a college degree may prove that the person holding it knows certain things, it doesn’t guarantee a job after graduation. Ritchie’s apprenticeship will give her all the skills she needs to do her job and will guarantee her a career when she’s done. At the same time, she won’t be accumulating the debt that often comes with a college degree.

Ritchie isn’t alone in looking for an alternative to college. Earlier this year, Sen. Terri Bonoff spoke in favor of the apprenticeship model as an alternative to traditional college education in the face of rising tuition costs and the lack of skilled workers coming out of universities. Bonoff is advocating for the Minnesota PIPELINE Project (Private Investment / Public Education Labor-Industry Experience).

“Minnesota continues to lead the nation in educational attainment, with nearly 500,000 students participating in some form of post-secondary education – ranking us 7th in the nation,” Bonoff says on her website. “Yet, a college degree is no longer a guarantee for students’ economic security. Nor is it producing workers that meet the needs of 21st century business. The PIPELINE Project is about designing a sustainable and scalable program that is a win-win relationship for both employers and our youth – matching student skills to business needs.”